8FOLD: Mancers # 6, "Big Scary Brain"

Tom Russell joltcity at gmail.com
Mon Aug 13 07:09:31 PDT 2018

Theirs is the midnight war - theirs, the twilight destiny! Kissed by
Venus, conduits for eldritch forces beyond mortal understanding, are
they the last best hope for the Earth, or the instruments of its

.  .
|\/|.-. .-..-.-,.-..-
'  '`-`-' '`-`'-'  -'
 # 6 [8F-180] [PW-28]


-------------DRAMATIS PERSONAE-------------
MAILE AKAKA, age 19. Aeromancer.
Abducted and memory-wiped by the secret circle, she now knows that she
is in fact The Company's top field agent and assassin.

LIEKE VAN RIJN, age 26. Doppelmancer.
Split into two autonomous bodies. Members of the secret circle tasked
with gaining Maile's trust.

AZABETH "BETH" COLLINS, age 36. Oneiromancer.
A member of the secret circle, and its true leader. Comatose.

JUNE LASH, age 46. Ailuromancer.
Gourmet chef and spymaster of the secret circle.

TREVOR JEFFRIES, age 22. Mekhanomancer.
A member of the secret circle; saboteur. Romantically interested in June.

DAVID COLLINS, age 30. Mnemonomancer.
An unwitting sleeper agent embedded within The Company by the secret
circle. The Company knows this, and the circle is trying to get him
out alive. Husband of Beth Collins.

TRINITY "TRINI" TRAN, age 34. Haematomancer.
A fugitive who works for The Company in return for their protection.
David's live-in girlfriend, unaware of his true history, spying on him
at the behest of Claire Belden.

CLAIRE BELDEN, age 29. Metamancer.
An agent of The Company, tasked with keeping their identity
clandestine, and with rescuing Maile from the secret circle. She is
also secretly responsible for Maile being captured by the circle,
unbeknownst to her superior, Lydia Black.

LYDIA BLACK, age 45. Paralymancer.
Head of Human Resources for The Company. Claire's lover.

SAMSON DRAKE, age 28. Sciomancer.
Company assassin, and formerly Maile's lover. Like Claire, he's been
tasked with bringing Maile back.

SARAH AVERY, age 24. Evocamancer.
An incredibly powerful mancer whom both sides are looking to recruit,
with hopes of tipping the balance in the midnight war.


"I am a brilliant genius engineer," mutters Sarah upon waking. She
twists her body so that it rests on her left side, enabling her right
arm to swing out in search of the pen and paper on her night table.
She misses the first time, knocking her alarm clock off the table. It
doesn't land with a hard clunk on the hard wood floor, but rather on
that pile of papers and books that she really should pick up one of
these days.
   "I am a brilliant genius engineer," she says again as she twists
over onto her right side and begins sketching out deep blue welts into
the paper, southpaw style. She doesn't say it to boast (no one around
to boast to), and she doesn't say it as some kind of affirmation. She
says it because it's a fact, simple and clean and undeniable.
   When she's done, she twists back onto her left, intending to
slam-dunk the pad of paper and the pen back into place. The pen
decides to roll off. No worries. There will be other pens.
   Her left wrist whispers insistently. "Hush, you," she whispers
back. She rubs the glowing, burning spot for a few minutes, until it
recedes into a dull itch.
   That much is normal. All of it - brilliant genius engineer, deep
blue welts, there will be other pens, and most of all the quiet
whisper of her burning wrist - all of it is normal, routine. But the
whisper was different this time.
   It's not that it was in a different language this time - it was the
same incomprehensible mix of sibilants and gutturals. And the
structure of it, the rhythm and cadence, was the same. Maybe even the
words (if they were words?) were the same. It was hard for Sarah to
tell, as she seemed to forget them as soon as she heard them. Trying
to listen to it and to remember the words always felt like it could
cause permanent damage, like staring into the sun.
   Because of that, she had never really tried. It's not that she's
scared. It's that she doesn't yet understand the nature and scope of
the problem. You don't solve a problem, especially a complicated and
dangerous one, by just doing things willy-nilly. She needs more data
before she can figure out this whole hell-gate thing. Mind you, not
that she's gone out of her way looking.
   But here, unbidden, is more data. Because though the whispers are
the same third-rate black speech knock-off she's been trying to ignore
since the summer, though the lyrics and the melody are the same, the
tone is different. None of the malice is there, none of the
foreboding. It's been replaced by something sensual, something
seductive, something almost friendly.
   And that part would scare her half to death, if she got scared.
   "I am a brilliant genius engineer," she whispers back, defiant.
   There's a tap at her window, muffled but insistent. She twists onto
her other side. "Hello, window cat," she says to the scraggly gray
beast thumping on the glass with its white paws. It stops and stares
at her. Almost like it understood her. And then it thumps at the glass
again, three more times. A pause. Three more thumps.
   Sarah goes to the window. The cat stares at her, thumps three more
times, and jumps down among the bushes. A quick breakfast, a shower,
and a change of clothes later, Sarah's out the door and the window cat
is waiting for her.
   "Do you wanna go inside?" she asks. "Pussycat, you should be inside."
   The cat does not want to go inside.
   "Do you belong to anybody?"
   Cats can't frown, but the cat frowns.
   "I'm sorry," says Sarah with a laugh. "I meant to say, does anyone
belong to you? Are you in possession of a house and a human?"
   The cat turns away from her, trotting down the walkway. The cat
stops at the sidewalk. It washes its face, then tosses its head
coquettishly over its shoulder, staring at Sarah.
   Sarah stares back. Cats don't roll their eyes, but the cat rolls
its eyes. Annoyed, it turns away from Sarah and goes back to washing
its face.
   "Oh, look," says Sarah. "You have a friend." Another cat is coming
down the sidewalk, from the left. It's a fat handsome tom, infinitely
pleased with itself. A little pouch of belly fat jiggles from
side-to-side as he toddles up to the scraggly gray window cat. He sits
down next to the scraggly gray, turns his head toward Sarah, and
   Immediately he is answered by a meow, but it's not the scraggly
gray. A third cat, white and delicate and triangle-faced, has come
down the sidewalk from the right. She lets loose a string of mews,
then sits next to the other two cats.
   The three of them turn and stare at Sarah. Her wrist is burning
again, whispering again.
   "Okay," says Sarah quietly. "I better follow you, then."
   The cats stretch their legs and walk three abreast, the gray
between the tom and the siamese. Sarah follows, obedient and bemused.
A block down, two more appear, one on either side of her.
   "You're keeping me in line, huh?" says Sarah to a tiny, underfed kitten.
   Without breaking its stride, the kitten hisses.
   "Okay, okay, no jokes then."
   After ten minutes, they're heading toward a restaurant, the sort
that charges you eight dollars for a tiny breakfast souffle and is
full of people working on their novels. There's outdoor seating,
little round tables with umbrellas, surrounded by a waist-high
iron-wrought gate. Leaning against the gate, staring at Sarah, is a
woman. She's younger than Sarah - might even still be in high school,
or maybe her first year in college. She can't quite place her features
- Polynesian maybe?
   The three cats in front disperse, running away from each other in a
hurry, as if they suddenly became aware of one another's presence.
Sarah's two bodyguards follow suit.
   The woman stares at Sarah, smirks, and snaps her fingers. It begins to rain.
   The few people eating in the area behind the fence rush inside. The
woman gestures to the now empty seats behind her.
   Sarah sighs. As she walks past the woman, she says, "Whole new
meaning to herding cats." She sits down at a table.
   The woman sits across from her. She holds up her hand, showing
Sarah the glowing mark on the back of it.
   Sarah tugs at the cuff of her sleeve, flashing her own mancer's
mark. "Are you with the umbrella lady?"
   This seems to take the woman by surprise, as she needs a moment to
recover. "I don't know who the umbrella lady is," she says. Either
she's a bad liar of she's telling the truth. Hard to tell. "My name is
   "Sarah. But you already know that, right?"
   "I do," says Maile. "Do you know what we are, the two of us?"
   "I'm a brilliant genius engineer," says Sarah. "But I guess you're
going to tell me that you're a mancer. If you want to define yourself
by some weird demonic tattoo on your skin, knock yourself out, lady.
But that's not me."
   "Good for you," says Maile. No sarcasm, almost genuine even. "Man,
if you had asked me five months ago who I was, how I defined myself? I
wouldn't have an answer. That drove my dad nuts. Dad, he was army;
that's who he was. His dad was navy. My great-grandpa, though? He was
an architect."
   Sarah assumes there's a point to the story, so she lets her continue.
   "But then Pearl Harbor was attacked, and for four years, he wasn't
an architect. He was navy. After the war, he went back to who he was
before the war. Mostly, anyway. It's not like it doesn't change you,
because it does, and it did.
   "I don't have myself figured out like you do, not by a longshot,
but this," she taps the back of her hand, "this is not who I am.
Except for right now it is. Because there's a war on."
   "Umbrella lady called it the midnight war," says Sarah. "There's
some folks who want to bring Venus back in a big way, and if they do,
it's the end of the world. Then there's folks who want to stop Venus
in a big way, and if they do, it's the end of magic."
   "We're the second one," says Maile cheerfully.
   "And how do I know that?" says Sarah.
   "The other guys wouldn't have sent cats to point you in my
direction. They would have just grabbed you. They wouldn't be talking
with you. They wouldn't even give you a choice."
   "And with you, I have a choice?" says Sarah. "I can just get up and
walk away if you fail your persuasion check?"
   Maile hesitates.
   "I thought so." Sarah gets up from her chair.
   "Wait," says Maile. "Yes. Yes, you have a choice. Here's the thing
though. We could really use your help. I mean, I'm assuming you're
against the end of the world, on general principle."
   "Yeah, but maybe I'm a pacifist."
   "And I respect that," says Maile. "The enemy doesn't. So, yes, you
have a choice, and you can walk away from me and from this. But the
other guys won't let you walk away. They will take you against your
will, and then they will wipe your memory, and turn you into what they
want you to be. And here's the thing: I can't let them get their hands
on you. You're that important. And Sarah, the only reason why I'm here
talking to you, why I know about you at all, is because we know
they're coming for you, and quick."
   "That's convenient," says Sarah. "Because all that means you can't
let me say no. Oh, you'd like me to have a choice in the matter, but
you don't have one yourself."
   "Which is why I'm hoping you'll say yes."
   Against her better judgment, Sarah sits down. "But what happens if
I say no? The other guys will take me anyway if I tell them no, but
how are you different?"
   Maile sighs, and thinks it over, then says, "I wouldn't take you
against your will. Wouldn't brainwash you. I've been through that
myself and I don't wish it on anybody. I'm still dealing with that. So
I guess what I'd have to do is, I'd have to kill you. You wouldn't be
much use to them dead."
   "Do this thing or I'll kill you. That isn't much a choice, is it?"
   "No, it's not," says Maile. "Though there is a third option. Come
with us. You don't have to be one of us. We just can't have you out in
the open where The Company can get at you."
   "I'd be your prisoner."
   "You'd be under our protection."
   "And, what, over time, I get to know you and yours, you become like
a family, eventually I believe in the cause or there's a moment where
I need to step up, and then I'm in the frontlines?"
   "Something like that, sure."
   "It's just another kind of brainwashing," says Sarah. "Maybe even
it's worse. Look. I don't want to fight your magical war. I don't want
to get involved. I don't want to be your prisoner. If that means
you're going to kill me, then stop flirting and do it."
   Maile leans back in her chair, holding her fist against her mouth,
thumping it gently against her lips, thinking. Then she leans forward.
"So, here's what's weird about that, Sarah Avery, genius brilliant
   "Brilliant genius engineer," Sarah corrects.
   "Stop flirting and do it. You didn't say try to do it. You didn't
say try to kill me. You said to just do it."
   "I'm calling your bluff, dear."
   "Oh, it's not that I'm not willing to do it if it comes to that.
Apparently I can be quite ruthless when I need to be. And I can do
more than make it rain." She squeezes her fist, and less than a mile
away, three bolts of lightning slam down in tandem. "That's what I've
got. But you..."
   Maile grabs Sarah's wrist. Sarah pulls it away. Maile grabs it
again, twists it, exposing the faintly glowing, quietly whispering
mancer's mark.
   "You've got something else entirely. Something more. If I was where
you were sitting? If someone told me they were going to have to kill
me? I wouldn't say do it. I'd tell them they could try. Then I'd wipe
the floor with 'em." Maile lets go of her wrist and slides back into
her chair. "So, what am I missing?"
   "That I can handle myself," she lies. "That if the other guys come
at me, when the other guys come at me, I don't need your protection,
or anybody else's. So I'm perfectly capable of staying out in the
   Maile shakes her head; she sees through her. "Or maybe you just
don't want to be a mancer. I'm not talking about how you define
yourself. I mean, you just don't want to have it at all. You'd even
let me kill you rather than have to use it. Bet you'd cut your hand
off first."
   "I tried once," Sarah says, her voice cracking. "They stopped me."
   Sarah's mark whispers loud enough that she's sure Maile can hear
it. Maile doesn't give any sign that she can, though. "It's different
for me. What you do, it isn't alive. You can control it. It doesn't
think. It doesn't want. It doesn't have a will of its own. I can't let
them out. Not again."
   "Not even to save the world?"
   Sarah gives a weak smile. "Just be trading one set of Lovecraftian
abominations for another. Yeah, I want to save the world, but not like
that. Hey, if you need an engineer, great. But as a demon-summoner,
let's just include me out, okay?"
   Maile's eyes light up. "What if I do need an engineer?"
   "What if I need someone with an analytical mind, someone who sees
connections, someone who builds things, someone who solves problems?
Because lady, I've got nothing but problems and they need solving.
What if I need an engineer?"
   "I was joking," says Sarah.
   "And I'm not," says Maile. "I'll be straight with you: I have no
idea how to win this war, but I know we need to win it. Having more
ideas is going to be better than having fewer."
   (I am a brilliant genius engineer.)
   "You come with me," Maile continues, "and I'll never ask you to use
your big scary demon powers. Just your big scary brain."
   Sarah steeples her fingers. "That might be a lot easier to say yes to."
   "Is that a yes?"
   "Well, it's not a no, but," Sarah stops and frowns. "I need time to
think all this over. I don't know you. I don't know if you're who you
say you are, or if I can trust you. Put yourself in my shoes, Maile."
   "I get that, I do," says Maile. "The problem is, I don't know how
much time we have before The Company shows up. They might even be
watching us now. You want time? Maybe we have an hour. Maybe we have a
minute." She shrugs. "So you need to make a decision now."
   Sarah shivers. "The cold from this constant rain isn't helping."
   "Actually, it is," says Maile. "The Company has some invisible
dudes on the payroll. Anti-men. Rain makes 'em easier to spot."
   "Neat trick," says Sarah. "Probably of limited use indoors,
though." She taps on the table. "But there might be a way around
   "Is that a yes?" please Maile.
   "Maybe we have a minute," repeats Sarah. "Can you give me a minute?"
   "Sixty seconds on the clock."
   Sarah closes her eyes. One minute to decide whether or not to throw
in her lot with a total and likely very dangerous stranger. "To be
clear, my options are still, say yes or you kill me?"
   "I mean..."
   "Just checking. Decisions, decisions." She doesn't blame her,
necessarily. Looking at it from Maile's point-of-view, it almost makes
sense, and if her choices were between death and being reprogrammed
and used by The Company, part of her would almost prefer death. She
does like living, though.
   There's a sound like the one swords make in movies, and someone is
grabbing her. Suddenly she's very cold, and then suddenly very warm,
and when she opens her eyes, she's on top of a roof.
   Standing next to her is a woman in pink. Pink hair, in a short
little mohawk, pink jacket, pink pants, pink shoes, pink lipstick,
pink sunglasses. A little ways from her, with his back turned to them,
is a big hulking man in a suit. He's talking to someone on the ground
below. Talking to Maile. It's the roof of the restaurant.
   "Don't move, my precious," says the pink woman.

Sarah closes her eyes, and Maile watches her, searching for signs. A
twitch of her lips, the slant of her head.
   "To be clear, my options are still, say yes or you kill me?"
   The threat was a tactical blunder, to be sure, since Sarah went
right ahead and called her bluff. At the same time, she wasn't exactly
bluffing; she just hadn't really anticipated that Sarah would even
want to turn her down. It hadn't occurred to her that faced with a
choice of us or them that Sarah would want to say no to both. So in
the moment, in the stark immediacy of it all, yes, letting her go was
never an option. But she should have been prepared, should have had
something else up her sleeve so she wouldn't have been forced to come
out and say it. That's what Maile gets for improvising. "I mean," she
trails off weakly.
   "Just checking," says Sarah, eyes still closed. "Decisions, decisions."
   At the same time, she was smart enough to see what Sarah wanted and
what she didn't, and to offer something new that she might say yes to.
That she will say yes to. That she has to say yes to, because no
matter how logical and brutal the calculus, she doesn't know if she
can bring herself to kill someone who, by all appearances, is a good
egg. And Maile wonders if she's killed other good eggs in the past,
working for The Company, to keep them out of the hands of the circle,
or if she willingly herded them in to be brainwashed. Ugh. This is why
her PCs were always lawful good. Even her rogues. Especially her
   She's about to tell Sarah that her time's up, when there's a sudden
flash of pink on Sarah's left. A punk rock refugee puts her arms
around Sarah, and the both of them disappear, leaving behind the smell
of jasmine.
   "Maile, my sweet!" booms a voice behind her. She turns.
   "Samson." He's on the roof. She tightens her fist into an angry
white ball. Say something cheeky, then bring down the mother-flipping
lightning and roast the sucker. "Is this the part where we have a big
stupid fight scene?"
   "That'll be up to Jamison. You probably don't remember my brother
Jamison, do you, Maile?"
   "Really always figured you for an only child."
   "Howdy," says the man as he hops over the gate. The rain slows down
to a drizzle. Why is the rain slowing down?
   Maile tries to say something, but she chokes; it tastes like her
mouth is full of salt. The rain is gone. Why is the rain gone?
   She thrusts out her hand. Lightning-lightning-lightning!
   Jamison tips his stetson with one hand and tugs at his apparently
unironic bola tie with the other. "I understand if you don't remember
me, ma'am. We only worked together once before. I think the reason is
probably obvious by now; I had always figured you to be a quick
   "You took my powers?"
   "Everyone's, really," says Jamison. "Useful in certain
circumstances, but it does mean I don't particularly play well with
others, and so my field work is rather specialized." From his holster,
he lazily plucks out what would pass for a pistol in a bad science
fiction film. "Dreadful sorry that we have to renew our brief
acquaintance in this manner."
   He lifts the gun, aims, and fires all in one swift motion. Blue
crackling light climbs through the air, still thick and humid from
Maile's storm. Maile doesn't move, doesn't blink; there's no reason
to. She knows the first shot will be a warning shot. It knocks over
the table behind her; the umbrella spills out, pole and all, and the
canvas portion of it catches aflame.
   Samson calls down to her. "Let us take you home, Maile. Let us fix
you up into the vicious little psychopath I know and love."
   "To be clear," Maile calls back, "my options are say yes, or you kill me?"
   "If it comes to that," says Samson.
   "Decisions, decisions."
   Jamison fires another shot. From the split-second look in his eye,
Maile knows this one's meant to hit home, and to hurt or stun. She
scrambles out of the way.
   Well, she doesn't have a gun and doesn't have her powers, which
means she needs to get close enough to knock him out. Of course, once
she does, chances are Samson or the teleporter will come into the fray
- assuming, of course, that Jamison's magic requires some kind of
focus. Oh well, one thing at a time.
   Jamison takes aim. The instant he pulls the trigger, Maile launches
one of the tacky chairs in his direction. It hits the beam and goes up
in a quick poof of smoke, the ruins landing a safe distance from
   Be that as it may, he's looking at it, even if only for just a
second and a half, and that's a second and a half she can use to rush
the bum.
   He recovers more quickly than she thought he would. She's dead in
his sights. He aims and he pulls the trigger.
   There's a click and a fizzle, but no dice. He's as surprised as she
is, and one jab in the jaw later, he's on the ground, sleeping like a
   Trevor hops over the fence.
   "What took you so long?" says Maile.
   "Nice to see you too," says Trevor. "Bet he wasn't expecting me to
cancel out his fancy-pants gun."
   "I bet not," says Maile.
   There's a whiff of jasmine and a flash of pink. Samson and the
teleporter (gosh, that sounds like a cover band) are on the ground.
The teleporter holds Sarah. Which means...
   "Here comes the rain again," murmurs Maile as a sudden and violent
thunderstorm boils overhead.
   "Here's what's going to happen," shouts Samson over the deluge.
"You're going to leave, live to fight another day. I'm going to get my
brother, then we're going to go."
   "You, your brother, and Hot Topic," says Maile. "I can live with that."
   "The four of us," says Samson, nodding to Sarah.
   "No good, Samson," says Maile. "Sarah's with us, aren't you, Sarah?"
   "That's looking pretty good right now, yeah."
   "She comes with us, or you die," says Maile. "Or, you die, then she
comes with us."
   "You can try," says Samson, grinning. "As you used to say, I get
plus-two to all my saving throws. And the second you start throwing
down with me, Pinky ports away with the girl. That's a loss for you,
   "So, I need to kill Pinky first. No offense, Pinky."
   "Um, lots taken?"
   "She would be easier to take out," admits Samson. "Slender little
thing. One bolt ought to do it."
   "Seriously, right here," says Pinky.
   "Chances are pretty good that you'll hit Sarah too," says Samson.
   Maile shrugs. "That keeps her out of your hands, doesn't it?" She
wants to throw a glance at Sarah, but she knows that will break the
illusion of her indifference.
   "You do that, and I kill you," says Samson.
   "Like you said. You can try," says Maile. "Plus-two to all my saving throws."
   "Looks like we're at an impasse," says Samson.
   "Not really," says Maile. "Because the thing you don't seem to
understand is, you have no leverage here, you big dumb moron. I want
Sarah for me and mine, but I'm willing to let her die. I've got no
investment. So you've got something I want, but nothing I can't live
   "So, wait," says Samson, "you think I'll be especially aggrieved if
you kill Pinky?"
   Pinky raises a finger. "I'm really concerned with my lack of agency
in these scenarios."
   "Not especially, no," says Maile. "But your brother might be
another story." She tosses the weird electric gun to Trevor. He takes
the hint, and rests the muzzle against Jamison's head. "You let Sarah
go, and you get to leave with your brother. If you kill her or try to
port away with her, you get to leave with most of your brother."
   Samson grins, ear-to-ear, and rubs his face in the palm of his
hand. "Here's the thing about my brother, babe." He reaches into his
jacket, pulling out his own weird electric gun and takes aim. "I've
got spares."
   The bolt ripples through the air. Maile and Trevor scramble out of
its way, and Jamison's head explodes in a messy blue ball of light.
   "Now," says Samson, pausing to holster his weapon, "you were saying
about leverage? Pinky, I'll find my own way back when I'm finished
here. You skedaddle." For emphasis, he waves at her with his right
   That's when something reaches out of the ground and snares his
wrist. It pulls down, hard, and the rest of him follows. Almost
immediately a gibbering, melting mass of black tentacles and yellow
eyes and pointed teeth boils over him and through him. Two seconds,
three: that's all it takes. In the same instant, Pinky and Sarah are
swallowed up in the growing, seething other.
   Almost immediately Sarah breaks free of it, or rather, it lets her
pass (or so it seems to Maile). She's shaking.
   "I know how hard that was for you," says Maile.
   "It wasn't," says Sarah. "I mean, I didn't. That's one of mine,
sure, but I didn't do it. But I felt it. Like someone else was
borrowing it from me."
    The mass lets out a groan, and flattens like a bad souffle. It
becomes a murky black puddle, and then nothing: like it was never
there at all, like Pinky and Samson were never there at all.
   "We'll figure it out," says Maile. "Right now, we should get going.
That is, if you're with us."
   Sarah looks at the mess that used to be Jamison's face. "Yeah,
sure. I'm with you."
   "Great. Trevor, how did Leek do?"
   "One of them got captured by some other Company schmucks, right on
schedule. Everything's going according to plan."



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